Monday, June 28, 2010

‘I ask God to help me do the right things’


By Shevlin Sebastian

Once in a while, at 7 a.m., P.E. Thomas, managing director of Merchem Limited, will sit on a chair and pray. He asks God for guidance to do the right thing. “I don’t want to hurt others through any action of mine,” he says. “This is very important for me.” Interestingly, this is all that he asks for.

He never sets aside any time to pray for his family. “I believe each of them has a destiny,” says Thomas. “It does not make any difference whether I pray for them or not. They can pray for themselves, like I do.”

These prayers for himself saved his life. A few years ago, Thomas was travelling in an Ambassador car with his nephew, at Koothatukulam. On the dashboard he had placed a magnetic image of Jesus Christ. As they were chatting, a truck suddenly braked in front of them. It was too late. The car hit the other vehicle with force.

The mud guard was damaged, while the steering wheel was twisted to one side. Thomas had numerous cuts on his face and hands, because the windshield had shattered, while his nephew lost a part of a tooth. “The presence of the image of Jesus probably prevented it from being a worse accident,” he says.

Thomas feels that life veers between happiness and sorrow. “If you are sad for some time, you will be delighted later,” he says. “This is the equilibrium of life. As a result I am afraid of enjoying myself too much, because I know that grief will be inevitable.”

To counter the distress, Thomas does a stint of meditation. It is then that he sees an unusual image in his mind: that of a bearded man, with a long jaw. “The face looks serene and kind,” he says. “This could be based on the many pictures of God that I saw in my childhood.”

But Thomas is reluctant to identify it as an image of Jesus Christ. “It is the portrait of a typical Jew,” he says. “But when I see it I feel happy and blessed.”

But there were many occasions in his life when Thomas did not feel blessed at all. In the late nineties, there were violent protests by local people, over environmental concerns, outside his chemical rubber factory at Eloor. His employees were beaten up. The trucks were prevented from moving out. Thomas, himself, was unable to enter the factory.

Things seemed hopeless. Despite this precarious situation, Thomas refused to take the help of any political party or union, because he did not want a third-party mediation. “As a result, I had to face the problems all alone,” he says.

But he fought back through the legal system and was able to re-start the factory. “Looking back, I feel that God gave me the necessary courage and will power to beat the odds,” he says.

Thomas says that even though Christianity has principles, like the Ten Commandments, he believes in only one. “That is the law of karma,” he says. “If you do bad, harmful events will happen to you. Similarly, when you do positive things you will enjoy a good fortune.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Spending time in the Asian Las Vegas

Macao is a paradise for gambling. Mainland Chinese and foreigners spend millions of dollars trying to hit the jackpot. But the region has several other charms, including well-maintained churches and temples, and tasty cuisine

Photos: The Venetian Macau; the author at Macau

By Shevlin Sebastian

M.J. Shah, the owner of a pharmaceutical firm in Mumbai, takes a photograph of his wife playing baccarat at the casino of the Venetian Macau hotel. Suddenly, a Chinese security woman, wearing a bright yellow uniform comes up to him and says, in a nasal voice, “No photographs in casino.” Shah apologises immediately. “I don’t like to gamble, but my wife does,” he says. Luckily, thanks to the din, his spouse cannot hear what he is saying.

Business magnate Shah came to Macao with 50 dealers and their wives. “The men had crossed the sales targets set for the year,” he says. “This is my reward to them, an all-expenses paid holiday at the Venetian. I expect to spend around Rs 70 lakh.”

As expected, most of the dealers at the casino, which has an area of 5 lakh square feet. There are hundreds of slot machines, and on green baize-topped tables, people play poker, roulette, Caribbean stud poker, craps, and blackjack. Stony-faced dealers, with names like Moon, Mabel, Pan and Fong, pinned on their chests, deal the cards with express speed.

And passions can be intense. At a baccarat game, a Chinese woman suddenly hits her husband on the back of his head. He looks back, and scolds her, but with a smile on his face. The grim-looking woman leans forward and proffers advice. He nods, plays, and loses again. Exasperated, she walks away. At other tables, there are shouts when somebody hits a jackpot and groans when the white ball falls into the wrong slot during a game of roulette.

In the midst of this melee, Rakesh Patel comes up and says, “Would you be interested in exploring the night life of Macau? I can offer guidance.” Rakesh ('Please call me Rocky') came from Ahmedabad two years ago and likes it in Macau. “For 400 Hongkong dollars, you can get a body massage, plus sex for 80 minutes,” he says. “But if you want Russian girls or those from countries like Kyrgzstan or Uzbekistan, the rates are high: 1100 dollars.”

Rakesh points at some delicious-looking girls standing outside, dressed in low-cut blouses, micro-mini skirts, and black stiletto heels. “They can be yours for a price,” he says.

Last year there were 45,000 Indian visitors in Macao. Indeed, there are a lot of Indians this year also. But what catches the eye are the women, who, in Chinese style, wear mini skirts, shorts, and see-through strapless dresses, and walk around in gay abandon, keenly aware that they could never wear these clothes in public back home in India.

Meanwhile, the highlight of the hotel is how they have recreated Venice on the third floor. There is the same architecture of the houses in the Italian city, as well as a canal flowing through the middle. Red shirted gondoliers on plush black gondolas take tourists on a serene ride.

Blonde-haired Nutella, a gondolier, is from Milan. “The Venetian was looking for a singer who could row a boat,” she says. “Since I can do both, I applied. I am enjoying my time here in Macao.”

When the boat reaches one end, Nutella breaks out into a famous Italian song, ‘Funicul√¨, Funicul√†’.

“It celebrates the opening of the first cable car on Mount Vesuvius in 1880,” she says. Bystanders hear her in rapt attention, and clap loudly when she finishes.

At one side, some Chinese people throw coins into the water. In fact, the floor of the stream glints with numerous coins. “People have a belief that if they throw a coin and pray for a wish, it will be granted,” says Nutella. So Indians and Chinese have at least some beliefs in common.

On another day I explore Macau. This Special Administrative Region of the Republic of China has an area of only 27 sq. kms. A large portion has been reclaimed from the sea. The place is spotlessly clean, with narrow streets and well-maintained buildings.

Massive hotels have come up here, with names like 'City of Dreams ', 'Grand Lisboa', 'Wynn Macau' and 'Galaxy World'. The Sheraton hotel, when it is complete, will be the world's largest, with 4000 rooms. There are 35 casinos in Macao, and the mainstay of the economy is gambling. One in five among the locals works in a casino.

“This is the Asian Las Vegas,” says Michael Chang, a guide. “Last year, there were 22 million tourists.” Most come from Hongkong and China. A bridge connects Macao to Zhuhai, a large border town in China.

At the oldest Buddhist temple in Macao, the A-Ma, constructed in 1488, Chinese visitors light incense sticks and pray on bent knees. A sign says, 'Your donation is highly appreciated. May we wish you unlimited blessings.'

At Our Lady of Penha church, built by the Portuguese, the gleaming wooden pews lent charm to the well-maintained building. “There is a lot of Portuguese influence in Macao,” says Michael. “They arrived here in the 16th century.”

That night, at the Perola restaurant at the Sands hotel, I had a Portuguese meal: dried cod fish ball, grilled sardines, clams, prawns, meat platter and boiled cabbage. But the dessert – Serradura (whipped vanilla cream with crushed biscuits) – tasted the best.

Meanwhile, Michael points to a white-painted bungalow and says, “That belongs to Stanley Ho's first wife.” The four-times married Ho, who controlled the gambling industry in Macao for 40 years, has an estimated personal wealth of $ 1 billion. Aged 88, he is now in indifferent health, and stays in Hongkong.

But hey,
You don't have to be Ho,
To enjoy Macao.
With lesser cash,
You can have a good bash.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Erosion of faith

Young Malayalis, belonging to the Mar Thoma church in America, do not have the same commitment as their elders

By Shevlin Sebastian

Rev. T.S. Philip, the parish priest of the Mar Thoma Syrian Christian church at Palarivattom, is slowly getting used to life in Kochi, after a three-year assignment in Houston, Texas. But he reflects often upon the myriad experiences he had in the United States of America.

“The big struggle for parents in America is to inculcate the Malayali culture among their children,” he says. “These children are Americans first, and Malayalis second. They don’t have much of a link to their roots. On the other hand, the American customs and culture have had a big impact on them. Parents find it difficult to accept this.”

There are three distinct groups in American parishes. “There is the older generation who want to strongly keep up the Indian culture,” he says. There are the youngsters who grew up in India, moved to the US, and are now sandwiched between American and Malayali culture. And finally, there are the Malayalis who are born and brought up there. “I have tried to carry all three groups together,” he says.

In America, the Mar Thoma church has about 65 parishes and in each parish there are about 300 families. Most of the families are well-to-do. The men work as engineers, doctors, IT professionals, businessman, chartered accountants, and journalists. The wives, for the most part, hold nursing jobs.

But the priest has observed that for most of the parishioners, going to church is more like a social gathering, rather than one of faith and spirituality. “I have felt disappointed by this attitude,” says Rev. Philip.

He has also felt disappointed by the widespread drinking of alcohol. “We are against the consumption of liquor,” he says. “But in America, all hotels have bars. Alcohol is always served during marriage functions.” The priest remembers that, once, when he had to attend a marriage reception of a community member, to gain entry, he had to go through the bar.

“Drinking is part of their culture,” says Rev. Philip. “But they are very careful about how they behave. If somebody makes a nuisance of himself, the police will be called immediately.” Even in the house, you cannot make so much of noise that it disturbs the neighbours.

“This is in stark contrast to the situation in Kerala,” says Rev. Philip. “People often get drunk and behave in an obnoxious manner.”

However, what is of growing concern to the priest is the attitude of the young Malayali-Americans. “They believe in God, but are willing to go to a church belonging to any other denomination,” he says. “They are not dedicated to the Mar Thoma church.”

Another problem is that more members are marrying non-Malayali Americans. As a result, they are leaving the Mar Thoma church and joining the denominations belonging to their spouses.

This decline of membership may affect the future of the Mar Thoma church in America. “As it is we are a small community, and if the second generation stays away it will be difficult for the church to survive,” says Rev. Philip. “The parents also feel upset. They want their children to stay within the community. But the culture in America is different. There is a lot of freedom for children to make their own decisions.”

When Rev. Philip asked the young Malayali-Americans about the reasons behind their aloofness, they complained about the church politics practiced by the elders. “They are not interested in that,” says Rev. Philip. “I admire them for their sincerity and straight-forward attitude.”

Meanwhile, the priest says that despite all the problems of living in Kerala, the faith is very strong in the state, even among the youth. “I am very happy about that,” says Rev. Philip. “The future of the Mar Thoma church lies in India, and not in America.”

Asked whether he missed America, Rev. Philip says, “I miss the smooth roads, the orderly queues, and the discipline shown in public life,” he says. “But my soul belongs to India. So I am happy to be back among my people.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Hocus pocus!

Kerala’s leading magician, R.K. Malayath, has been enthralling audiences for the past 44 years. He also trains aspiring godmen from Tamil Nadu and other states on how to produce vibhuti (saced ash) by sleight of hand

By Shevlin Sebastian

Magician R.K. Malayath asks me for an Rs 100 note. When I give it to him, he stretches it out, asks me to hold one end, while he holds another. Then he takes out a ballpoint pen and plunges it into the note. The pen comes out from the other side. Malayath is saying something, but I am in shock. ‘My Rs 100 note has a big hole in it,’ I say to myself. ‘I won’t be able to use it any more. How could he do this to me?’

Malayath continues to murmur something and suddenly he withdraws the pen and the note is whole again. It is an optical illusion. Sitting two feet away, I could not detect it. Before I can ask him anything, Malayath raises his hand and says, “I am sorry it is a trade secret. I cannot reveal how it is done.”

Malayath, who turned 60 on May 26, is one of Kerala’s leading magicians. In a 44-year career, he has conducted over 10,000 shows. His wife, Nirmala, and son, Rakin, help him, along with 22 assistants.

For a show, his props fill up two trucks and weigh three tonnes. He takes about eight hours to set up everything at the concert venue, before the two-hour performance gets underway. Malayath charges between Rs 75,000 to Rs 1 lakh per event, and has performed all over India and in the Middle East.

When Malayath speaks about magic, he has an excited look on his face. This passion was engendered in him in his childhood. Malayath would watch street magicians perform their tricks – a small rock would turn into a bird -- in the town of Nilambur, where he grew up and would wonder how they did it. When he approached the magicians to teach him, he was rebuffed.

After completing his Class ten examinations, in 1964, Malayath became a member of the Manaludi Arts and Sports Club in his town. For a fund-raiser, held during a festival, they decided to hold a magic show to be conducted by one of the members, Vijayan. Unfortunately, he performed poorly, and the audience heckled the youngster.

After the show was over, a man came to the stage and did a few tricks. “It was obvious that he was a good magician,” says Malayath. But he vanished soon after.

But by making some frantic enquiries, Malayath was able to find out that the man’s name was Ali Khan and lived near a hospital in Manjeri, 25 kms from Nilambur. The next morning, Malayath travelled to Manjeri and met Ali.

After some reluctance, Ali agreed to teach the youngster. “I began a guru-shikshya discipline for the next three years,” says Malayath. Ali told him to drop in to his home on weekends. In those days there were no phone links. Sometimes, when Malayath arrived, Ali Khan would be out performing magic shows in different places.

“I had to wait for hours,” he says. “Sometimes, he would teach for half an hour, then for one or two hours. Sometimes, I would get half a day, and if I was lucky he would teach me for the whole day.” The guru provided tea and lunch, and took no fees.

Malayath learnt basic techniques like materialising something from nothing, making things disappear and ‘palming’ – hiding small objects between the fingers. Other methods included removing a thing from one place and placing it in another. Then there was levitation and mental magic: doing magic through mind power.

“I used sleight of hand and others forms of trickery, but there are also underlying scientific principles,” says Malayath. “Step by step, Ali taught me the trade.”

Ali used to perform with Vazhakunnam Neelakandan Namboothiri, who is known as the father of magic in Kerala. Soon, Malayath was invited to assist with them. Then he got a chance to do his first solo show.

This was in the Government High School at Azhchavattom, Kozhikode. Malayath performed various tricks for an hour for children aged between six and eight. “If you can perform successfully in front of children, then you have passed the stiffest test possible,” he says. “Children are curious, inquisitive and sharp. They can easily spot mistakes.”

After the show, the children took out a collection and gave Rs 15 to Malayath. He began to earn between Rs 2 and Rs 25, doing shows in different places. “A meal would only cost 60 paise in those days,” he says. “So it was a good income for me.”

Malayath would pay his college fees -- he was doing his B.Com course in Guruayyapan College, Kozhikode -- and buy a good shirt now and then. “Slowly, I became popular,” he says.

In his shows, Malayath tries to give a social message. One of the most common items is to cut a thread or a ribbon, and join it together. This is known as ‘cut and restore’. Instead of using an ordinary ribbon, Malayath used the colours of the national flag: saffron, white and green.

He would cut off one small piece and say it is Pakistan. Other pieces included Khalistan, Kashmir, Bodoland, and Gorkhaland. Malayath would rejoin all the pieces together through magic, and say, “It is only when we are together that we can overcome the divisive forces.”

He has also done magic shows on Aids awareness, literacy propagation, computer literacy, and mental health awareness. “They are all very popular,” he says. However, nowadays, he is concentrating on doing anti-terrorism shows.

Meanwhile, the most interesting aspect of Malayath’s profession is how he trains godmen and swamis from states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in magic. Somehow, the word spread that Nilambur is the place where many magicians reside.

So, they would come and ask people like Malayath to teach them on how to produce vibhuti (holy ash) out of nowhere. Initially, Malayath refused, because he was aware that their aim was to go back to their villages, and hoodwink the people by saying that they are saints or holy men.

“I am against people misusing magic,” says Malayath. When the premier magician said no, the aspiring godmen went in search of others. But Malayath soon discovered that his fellow magicians took enormous fees, and would not teach the proper methods.

“I realised that they were fleecing these people,” he says. “I felt very angry about it.”

So he decided he would teach them the proper methods, but in order to dissuade most people, he charged an exorbitant Rs 20,000 for three days of training. But, still, there were takers and, nowadays, Malayath teaches them the right methods.

“It is just sleight of hand,” he says, with a smile. “This is what Sai Baba has been doing for several decades, with great success.”

The father of magic

Vazhakunnam Neelakandan Namboothiri (1903-1983) is known as the father of magic in Kerala. While studying Sanskrit at Guruvayur, he happened to see a magic show by an expert named Pallatheri Nambyathan Namboodiri. Vazhakunnam got interested in the art and approached Pallatheri, who agreed to teach him.

Vazhakunnam gained further expertise when another well-known magician Bekkar also taught him some tricks. He also became adept at card inventions. But his famous ruse was to disappear completely.

Vazhakunnam would keep his stuff in a small bag and would take it with him whenever he travelled. At the request of people, he would demonstrate his act. And he must be the only magician who, after performing a stunt, would show his audience how it is done.

Most of the contemporary magicians in Kerala like Mandrake, R.K. Malayath, Joy Oliver, K P Krishnan Bhattathiripad and Gopinath Muthukad, Jr. had been trained by him.

“He was a special person with special skills,” says Gopinath. “Thanks to him, magic became popular all over Kerala.”

Other magicians

Gopinath Muthukad is perhaps the most well-known magician in Kerala today. A founder of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Magic Academy, he has been performing all over Kerala, the Middle East, Japan, Switzerland, UK, South Africa, and Sri Lanka.

“I am against fake godmen and those who propagate superstitions,” he says. His most popular act is to materialise a cinema hero from the screen as a flesh-and-blood person, and return him to the screen as a shadow.

Samraj, who has been performing for the past thirty years, has done about 8000 stage shows. He is about to embark on a tour of Australia. “My specialty is horror magic,” he says. “You will be surprised to know that children are the ones who enjoy it the most.”

The chairman of the Magical Institute for Research and Development, Mavelikara, Samraj writes columns on magic for children in Malayalam newspapers and in Dubai also.

“My most popular act is to make a disappearance of the Statue of Liberty from the stage,” he says. He has also escaped after being buried in a coffin underground.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

An attack on psychiatry


Stop Psychiatric Damaging

By Dr. Joseph Isaac

Rs. 125. Published by The Book Digest, Kottayam

By Shevlin Sebastian

Many years ago I was staying in the ground floor apartment of a building at Kolkata. On the first floor there lived a Parsi youth, Dinshaw Mistry (name changed). Dinshaw suffered from schizophrenia. When I talked with him, occasionally, he would say that Lata, who lived on the third floor, had sent a message through a wireless transmitter, saying, “I love you Dinshaw.” Sadly, it was a flight of fantasy on his part.

It was a rare day when Dinshaw was in a lively mood. Most of the time, he looked dull and morose. “The psychiatrist has given me some strong medicines,” he used to say, by way of explanation.

One day, probably because of the drugs, he went up to the terrace of a nearby building, climbed the parapet, and jumped. Thankfully, Dinshaw hit the branch of a tree, which broke his fall, and so he survived, but with a damaged spine. His father told me later that when the psychiatrist came to know about the suicide attempt, he increased the dosage of drugs.

All these memories of Dinshaw came flooding back when I read, ‘Stop Psychiatric Damaging’ by Dr. Joseph Isaac, a clinical psychologist at the Government Medical College, Kottayam. The theme that runs through the book is that “psychiatric drugs damage the body, brain, and the overall personality.” The author states that patients who are addicted to these drugs become disillusioned and helpless.

Regarding schizophrenia, Isaac says that it cannot be measured by blood tests or brain imaging. “Psychiatrists are misleading the people by attributing a medical status to schizophrenia,” he says. “In fact, nobody knows what causes the disorder.”

Dr. Thomas Szasz, Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus at the State University of New York, says, “Psychiatry is one of the greatest destructive forces. It makes people consume toxins as a panacea for their emotional starvation.”

Isaac argues that mental disorders are not diseases which can be cured by taking drugs. Instead, it is only through counselling, relaxation techniques, and encouragement that a person can be healed.

‘Stop Psychiatric Damaging’ is a passionate book about the dangers of psychiatry. Isaac says that it is clinical psychology, and not psychiatry, which can heal patients. For those who know somebody, who is suffering from a mental disorder, and want to provide the right help, this is a must-read.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ayurveda answers for all


Dr. S. Sajikumar says that hair loss and skin problems afflict most women these days. His company, Dhathri Ayurveda Pvt. Ltd., provides timely solutions

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Dr. S. Sajikumar, the chairman and managing director of Dhathri Ayurveda Pvt. Ltd., was practicing at Warrier's Hospital in Kayamkulam, several years ago, a mother brought her 18-year-old daughter, Bhavna, for treatment. Her body was covered with psoriasis – an inflammatory skin disease characterised by scaly patches.

“It was quite bad,” says Sajikumar. People in their neighbourhood became angry as they felt that the disease was contagious. But after three months of regular treatment, Bhavna was cured. “In fact she looked beautiful and, later, had a good marriage,” says Sajikumar.

Recently, the Alleppey-based Bhavna came to visit the doctor. She had brought along her daughter, Ritu. “Bhavna wanted to know whether Ritu would have the same problem,” says Sajikumar. “I checked and saw that the chances were slim.” When Sajikumar saw Bhavna again he felt a deep sense of happiness, satisfaction, and accomplishment.

It was during his stint at Kayamkulam that Sajikumar came across numerous cosmetic problems like acne and hair fall. “I realised that this was an area in which Ayurveda’s commercial potential had not been developed at all,” he says.”

So he started the Dhathri Ayurveda, Beauty and Slimming (ABS) clinics in 2003. The company provides solutions in the hair, skin care, and health segments.

Interestingly, the most common complaint among women is hair loss and skin problems. “This is the result of our lifestyle and the food we eat,” he says.

In earlier times, there was high nutrition and low calorie foods. Now it is high calorie, and low nutrition. “I am talking of junk food like burgers, French fries, noodles, and carbonated drinks,” says Sajikumar. “We think it is good for us, but it is actually poisonous.”

The doctor suggests that we eat rice, vegetables, pulses, fish, and wheat products. “There should be very little oil in it,” he says. Unlike in the past, oil is heated at more than 100 degrees Centigrade today, which results in carbon being one of the components.

“This settles inside the body and, in the long term, damages the colon,” says Sajikumar. “We could end up with cancer. Eat natural foods as far as possible. And let your mind be relaxed all the time.”

Unfortunately, owing to a frenzied lifestyle, most people are stressed-out and anxiety-ridden. They suffer from diabetes, hypertension, obesity, heart problems and posture complaints like cervical and lower-back pain.

Because of these problems, the people are coming to his clinics regularly for relief.

However, there are others who come because of the new trend to look beautiful. “More women are working and are aware of the need to look good,” says Sajikumar. “When you are attractive, you feel self-confident.”

Ranjini Nair, who works in the travel industry, is a regular customer. “I like the products made by Dhathri,” she says. “Since it is Ayurveda-based, there are no side-effects.”

Apart from looking good, losing weight is a preoccupation with most clients. “It is very difficult to shed the kilos,” says Sajikumar, with a smile. “To gain weight is easy because eating is a pleasure. However, when people want to lose weight, they find it difficult to abstain from food. Instead, they want quick-fix solutions.”

So, in the clinic, after a careful study, the amount of fat and water that has to be reduced will be decided. “We will burn this out through ayurveda therapy and specific treatments, like Italian aesthetic technology,” says Sajikumar. To reduce five kilos, it takes 7 to 10 sessions spread over a month.

Meanwhile, good fortune is smiling on Sajikumar. He was recently given the Best Ayurveda Doctor (Yuva Prathibha) award by the state government for distinguished services to the community.

The company has a Rs 40 crore turnover and the products, made in factories in Muvattupuzha and Kayamkulam, are sent to UK, Australia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. Sales are good, profits are comfortable, and this is embodied in the fact that Sajikumar moves around in a Mercedes Benz E class vehicle.

Asked about the qualities needed to be successful, he says, “You have to be transparent in your dealings with the staff, customers, and outsiders. When you offer a product it should be of a very high quality. Finally, you should be confident and have a sense of conviction about whatever you are doing.”

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, June 21, 2010

‘Ahura Mazda is the supreme God’


By Shevlin Sebastian

At 8.30 a.m., Bakhtiar Dadabhoy, an author and a senior officer of the Indian Railways stands in front of a photograph of Prophet Zoroaster, and says the kusti prayers. (These are the daily prayers that a Parsi recites, while tying and untying the cord, called the kusti, worn around the waist).

These prayers are in praise of the Parsi God, Ahura Mazda.

“He is the supreme God of the Zoroastrians,” says Bakhtiar. “He symbolises truth, purity, justice, courage and strength.”

Incidentally, the prayers are said in Zend, the ancient language of the Persians. The Parsis came to India from Persia (modern-day Iran) in the 10th century to escape religious persecution.

Following the kusti prayers, Bakhtiar focuses on his individual concerns. “I pray for peace of mind,” he says. “We are lacking tranquility these days.” He also asks for guidance to make the right decisions in life, for protection against ill health, and the evil designs of people.

Asked whether God is an illusion, Bakhtiar says, “Even if we don’t believe, the thread of God runs right through all our lives. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you will realise that God is always speaking to you. It might be though intuition, or by somebody who gives a word of advice, or help, at a time when you need it the most.”

He says that one night an idea flashed across his mind to write a book. “Looking back, I am sure that it was God’s prompting, because it came out of nowhere,” he says. “I had never imagined a career in writing, since I am a civil servant. But it changed my life.”

Bakhtiar went on pen several books, including Jeh: A Life of JRD Tata, a well-received biography of the late industrialist, as well as Sugar in Milk: Lives of Eminent Parsis.

Once in a while, Bakhtiar goes to the ‘Most Holy of the Holy’ of the Parsis: the Iranshah Fire Temple at Udvada, a small town in Gujarat. “I feel happy there because the vibrations are calm and soothing,” he says.

Asked whether he gets upset with God when bad things happen, Bakhtiar says, “I used to get angry, but now I am trying to face negative events in a philosophical manner. I believe that when you resist, it persists. So, accept with grace and the event loses its power on you.”

Bakhtiar then elaborates on the Zoroastrian religion. “Our faith stresses good thoughts, words and deeds,” he says. “We believe that the world is a battleground between good and evil forces. Man should assist God in getting rid of evil.”

Zoroastrian theology apart, Bakhtiar also believes in non-duality, as propagated by Adi Sankara. “Man is part of God, but has not realised it,” he says. “It is the feeling of separateness, created by man’s ego that prevents him from becoming a divine being.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Add some spice to your life


M.E. Meeran, the chairman of the Rs 400 crore Eastern Group has led the company to a position of strength. Their curry powder has been a best-seller for years

By Shevlin Sebastian

For several years M.E. Meeran had run a wholesale provisions shop in his native town of Nellimattom, near Kothamangalam. Then he wanted to expand his business.

A suggestion by an Adimali-based brother-in-law made him go to the town. He liked the place, and rented a room. Wondering what to call his shop, he realised that he had traveled from the west to the east. So he decided to call it the Eastern Trading Company.

Among the many things Meeran sold, the one in regular demand was chilly powder. As the demand grew, he decided to start a factory in Adimali in 1984. It began to do well from the very beginning. A few years later, Meeran took on the distributorship of well-known companies like Kerala Soaps, Mysore Lamps, and Brittannia Industries Limited.

One day he attended a workshop conducted by Brittannia at Ooty. One of the instructors said that in order to be successful, companies should avoid the whims and fancies of wholesalers and deliver the products directly to the retailers.

“I took the message deep to my heart,” says Meeran. Thereafter, he began to hire vehicles for transportation. “Today, the Eastern Group sells goods directly to 40,000 retailers all over Kerala,” says Meeran, the chairman of the Rs 400 crore company.

They also export products to Europe, and several countries in the Middle East. “Our biggest market is in the United Arab Emirates,” says Meeran, in his tastefully-decorated corporate office in Edapally, near the Oberon Mall. Each month the firm sends 20 containers there.

“Ninety percent of our customers in the UAE are Malayalis, but Arabs also like chicken and turmeric powder,” says Meeran. The other popular products include chilly powder, coriander, turmeric, and Kashmiri chilli.

Recently, the firm bought a state-of-the-art chilly grinding mill from Germany. “Earlier, we would produce 100 kgs an hour,” says Meeran. “Now it is 1100 kgs an hour. A friend told me recently, ‘Thanks to the new machines curry powder is gushing out like a waterfall at the factories.’”

The company has factories in Adimali and Theni in Tamil Nadu. Two more are coming up in Guntur (Andhra Pradesh) and Kothamangalam (Kerala).

The Eastern Group has a staff strength of 2500. But among its factory workers, there are many from West Bengal and Orissa. “We had to hire from outside, because there are a lot of opportunities for the local people now,” says Meeran. There are 300 autorickshaw drivers in Adimali town itself. People work in textile shops, hotels, and in tourism. “Nowadays, you can step out of one job and get another one easily,” says Meeran.

The lack of local people is not a hindrance. The company’s daily production is 110 tons, but the group is now targeting places like New Delhi, Mumbai, and other cities for growth. “There is an untapped market for our products all over India,” says Meeran. “We are aiming for a daily production of 300 tons.”

Today, the group is far ahead of the competitors. And Meeran analyses the reasons for this. “We have always produced high-quality products,” he says. “Thereafter, one should never overcharge. The products should be easily available to customers. If I say, ‘I have made a good curry powder in Adimali, the people of Ernakulam will not come there to buy it.’”

The products should be packed attractively and there should be continuous advertisements in the print and visual media. “If a customer wants to buy curry powder, the name ‘Eastern’ should come to his mind immediately,” says Meeran.

Apart from all this, the most important aspect is planning. “Without planning, all the other attributes are useless,” says Meeran.

He says that the company buys the raw materials during the months of January to March. “We are always looking to get the best price,” says Meeran. So, well in advance, company officials will scour the world for the best deals. “We have bought curry powder from Russia, Indonesia, and Vietnam.” This year, since the international prices were high, they have purchased locally.

But the group insists on buying the very best. So the R&D department, with its fully-automated lab, will check all purchases for traces of salmonella, pathogens, bacteria, and toxins. “If I want to export to Europe, I have to produce curry powder of the best quality,” says Meeran.

Thanks to this insistence on quality, the Eastern Group has won the ‘Best Export Award’ by the Spices Board for 12 years in a row. And even though Meeran is 69, and his son Nawaz is helping him, the fire continues to burn brightly within him.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, June 14, 2010

‘The Creator has brought all things into existence’


By Shevlin Sebastian

“When bad things happen I never get angry with God,” says Mayankutty Mather, a lawyer. “I am reminded of the story of Arthur Ashe.”

Ashe, the first black Wimbledon tennis champion, contracted Aids through a blood transfusion. This would eventually kill him in 1993. In his autobiography, ‘Days of Grace’, Ashe recounts the incident of a man who came up to him and said, “Have you cursed God and asked Him why this has happened?”

Ashe replied, “I have not cursed God. Because when I became the Wimbledon champion I did not ask God, ‘Why you have given me this blessing?’ When I got a beautiful wife, I did not ask Him why He gave me such a wonderful gift. So therefore I have no right to ask ‘why’ when a tragedy takes place?”

Mayankutty believes that there will always be ups and downs in life. “God has clearly said, ‘You will be tested -- with illnesses, financial problems, and the death of dear ones,’” he says. “The devout will say, ‘From God we have come, and to Him we will return.’”

Like any ardent Muslim, Mayankutty prays five times a day. “I pray for the family, for my late parents, and for communal harmony,” he says. “We Muslims should value the tolerance of the vast majority of Hindus. So many of them stood up and protested when the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992, as well as after the 2002 Gujarat riots. In Parliament, it was their voices that rang out.”

Mayankutty’s turning point came in 1994 when he attended a religious meet at the YMCA hall in Aluva. An atheist, he stood up and attacked Islam. “I said there was no God,” he says. After the meeting, a friend, Ismail, asked Mayankutty whether he was criticising Islam after studying it. “Why should I learn it?” said Mayankutty. “I am witnessing the follies of the mullahs regularly.”

Ismail said, “First you study the religion and then you can show your disapproval.” Mayankutty felt that it was sensible advice. “So I tried to analyse whether there is a Creator or not,” he says. He read numerous books on Islam, as well as those on Christianity and Hinduism.

And his research led him to the conclusion that there is a Creator. “The scientist can explain what an atom is, but he does not know how it is created,” says Mayankutty. “When I see life in its multifarious variety, I am hundred per cent sure that without a Creator all these things cannot come into existence.”

Having found his faith, a grateful Mayankutty went to Mecca a few years ago to do the Haj pilgrimage.

“The most wonderful experience at Mecca was that on one particular night millions of people had to stay on a huge ground,” he says. “There were the rich and the poor, the scholar and the ignorant, the king and the pauper side by side. There were no distinctions. That was when I realised that in the eyes of God, we are all the same.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A feminine force


B. Sandhya, Inspector General of Police, bemoans the poor image of the police in society, even as she tackles family problems, crime, and road accidents

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning, a housewife, Meera (name changed), came to see B. Sandhya, the Inspector General of Police, Ernakulam Range. “She told me that she was constantly receiving indecent messages on her mobile phone,” says Sandhya, who ordered an investigation.

The offender belonged to another district. He was using the phone to send sex messages to many women. “We are inquiring on how he got Meera’s number,” says Sandhya. “In our society, many people are mentally sick.”

Every morning, Sandhya receives members of the public at her office on Marine Drive. The complaints range from financial cheating, physical beating of the wife by the husband, children abandoning old parents, and unnatural deaths.

“The relatives will inform me about the deaths,” she says. “Sometimes, they allege that the police investigation was not done properly.”

Sandhya admits easily that the police have a poor image in society. “There is a historical reason,” she says. The force, during the rule of the British, was used as a weapon to oppress the people. But, today, despite India being a thriving democracy the public continues to view the police as an instrument of persecution.

“It is always there in the back of their minds even though the people might not have experienced a single instance of bad behaviour by the police,” says Sandhya.

The unfavourable portrayal of the men in khaki in television serials and films has also aggravated the situation. “As a result, people continue to look at the police in a negative way,” says Sandhya. “But we are there to serve the people.”

But it does not help that, in the name of serving the people, the police behave rudely and use third-degree methods, even in petty cases. “We have made it clear that torture is not the policy of the department,” says Sandhya. “When a policeman uses these techniques, he is going against the force.”

She is also determined that corruption will be dealt with firmly. “It would help if the public lodge complaints,” says Sandhya. “Nowadays, thanks to technology, it is easy. You can send an SMS or an e-mail, in case you don’t want to appear in person.”

But thanks to the Janamaithri community policing programme, more and more people are meeting policemen in person. “There are many crimes which have been solved because of the information given by the public.”

Sandhya gives an example. A 19-year-old plumber was doubling up as a thief at night. “The local people had a suspicion about him,” she says. “Because of the Janamaithri project we could get him early. Otherwise, he might have committed many more thefts before we caught him.”

By that time he would be 25, a seasoned thief, and beyond redemption. “Now, when he leaves prison, we will try to reform him,” she says. “If we fail, the police, as well as the society will have to suffer him for the next fifty years.”

Meanwhile, immediately, the force is gearing up for the monsoon season. “The number of thefts will increase,” says Sandhya. “People sleep longer and deeper during the rainy season. So thieves take advantage.”

Another drawback of the rains is that the frequency of accidents rises steeply. “This is mainly due to slippery roads,” she says.

Another aim of Sandhya’s is to reduce the number of pending cases. “Victims get upset when cases are registered and the results are not forthcoming,” she says. “I am trying to ensure that the petitions are taken up in a time-bound manner, especially atrocities against women.”

In her spare time, Sandhya writes novels and does paintings. When asked whether policing damages the soul, she laughs and says, “Not at all. I have had so many unusual experiences and am able to meet different kinds of people. This has enriched my art.”

So what is Sandhya’s understanding of human beings? “Many people come to meet me to tell me their stories,” she says. “There is nobody to listen to them. People need affection and do not get it.”

This has a direct repercussion on society. When children don’t receive love and care from their parents, they have a tendency to gravitate towards crime when they grow up. “I am worried about that,” she says.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

All ready to make an impact

The Rs 2600 crore International Container Transshipment Terminal at Vallarpadam, Kochi, is all set for a soft launch next month. A look at the behind-the-scenes activities and the significance of this world-class terminal

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, work is going on at full swing at the Vallarpadam International Container Transshipment Terminal, at Kochi. Lorries whiz past raising clouds of dust. Paver blocks are being laid to make a road. Workers carry furniture inside a building.

On the wharf, eleven rubber-tyred gantry cranes (RTGs) can be seen. Costing $1.7 million each, the RTGs have been imported from Abu Dhabi. What is yet to arrive are the massive ship-to-shore cranes, 70 metres in height, which will be arriving from Shanghai in a couple of weeks.

Standing besides a five-storey building is Suresh Joseph, the General Manager of DP World Cochin, which is a partner of the Cochin Port Trust, for the Rs 2,600-crore project. He is wearing a fluorescent green vest and a yellow helmet.

Joseph speaks to a Malaysian engineer, Kim, about cleaning out the culverts on one side. He tells another manager that the tiles on the staircase in the administrative building of DP World have been inadvertently chipped at one end.

Work is going on at a frenetic pace because the terminal is supposed to have a soft launch in July.

“This is the biggest integrated port project undertaken in India,” says Joseph. There is a brand-new railway line and an exclusive highway link.

The terminal has an area of 265 acres. Inside, apart from the 605m wharf, there is a stacking yard, a documentation centre, a workshop, an office for the administrators of the Special Economic Zone, four electricity sub-stations, and an amenity centre.

Joseph looks down, taps the paver-block surface with his foot, and says, “You cannot imagine the amount of hard work that has gone into this project. The site conditions were very adverse. This is reclaimed land, and the soil was slushy, with a lot of muck.”

So DP World had to adopt various soil-stabilising measures. One method was the installation of stone columns. “You bore down to a specific depth, remove all the bad soil, and then tamp in stones of various sizes,” says Joseph. “The aim was to replace the unstable soil, which did not have the strength on which we could build the infrastructure.”

This took 18 months to finish. And now everything is slowly falling into place. But, recently, a senior official of DP World complained about the slow pace of dredging done by the Cochin Port Trust.

“90 per cent of the work is complete,” says N. Ramachandran, the chairman of the Cochin Port Trust, a day later. “It is only in the basin area near the wharf that needs to be finished.”

He points through his large glass-paned office on the sixth floor, on Willingdon Island, at the vessel ‘Jalsu,’ standing immobile in the sea, not far away. “That is a dredger,” he says. In 20 minutes it scoops up 8,800 cubic metres of earth. The ‘Jalsu’ will make eight trips in a day to the outer sea to deposit the silt. On an average, it scoops up around 70,000 cubic metres of mud daily.

The Port Trust is creating a depth of 60 feet in the channel so that large ships can arrive at the terminal. “We are also increasing the width from 200 to 300m,” says Ramachandran.

Not many people know about the tremendous economic importance of the terminal. As of now, containers from places like Nagpur, Madurai, and Coimbatore are taken to the nearest sea port: Chennai, Mumbai, Kochi, Mangalore, or Tuticorin. From there the containers are transferred by feeder ships to Colombo where they are loaded on to large ships which will take the goods to places like Europe and America.

“What the terminal at Kochi will do is to make the journey to Colombo unnecessary,” says Ramachandran. “Exporters will save around $300 per container. The travel time will be lessened by seven to ten days. This will be of great advantage for Indian exports and imports.”

The scope for business is enormous. “Colombo receives between 2 to 3 million containers from India annually,” says Ramachandran. “Singapore and Dubai get similar volumes. A substantial part of this business will come to Kochi.”

The other big advantage is the numerous employment opportunities that are going to come Kerala’s way. “There are going to be several Container Freight Stations,” says Joseph. A CFS is a place where containers and cargo can be stored, and get the required Customs clearance.

“Normally, every major terminal gets the support of about 15-20 CFS,” says Joseph. “But thanks to the negative image of Kerala, as a state prone to labour agitations, there are only two CFS at the Rajiv Gandhi Container Terminal at Kochi.”

But now, five CFS have already come up in places like Kalamaserry and Eloor. “There will be many more,” says Joseph. “Several private companies have expressed interest.” Many workers will be needed to man this. Security personnel will also have to be hired.

The number of trucks which will arrive at the terminal daily will be around 2500. “There will be a need for many drivers and cleaners,” says Ramachandran. New petrol stations will come up, apart from spare parts shops. Packaging units will have to be set up, since material sent abroad has to be carefully packed. Small hotels and restaurants will also come up.

“As the city’s population increases, there will be a need for new houses,” says Ramachandran. “Since so many ships will be arriving, there will be opportunities for firms to supply water and food materials to the crew.”

However, there is one drawback. “The number of vehicles that are going to be unleashed from the terminal is going to be enormous,” says Ramachandran. “Places like Kalamaserry, through which trucks will have to pass, to enter national highways, will become jam-packed. So, the state government has to develop new roads and flyovers on a war footing.”

Another underlying concern is the possibility of strikes. “We cannot afford to lose a single minute to a strike,” says Joseph. “The workers should remember that we are competing with international terminals the world over. Transshipment is so sensitive to time, that if you say that for ten minutes I am not going to serve this ship, there will be huge repercussions. Shipping companies will immediately move off to other more efficient terminals.”

In the meantime, DP World has been hiring some of the best talent it can obtain. “We have people who have worked in international ports like Dubai and Salalah,” says Joseph. They have applied for jobs because they wanted to return home to Kerala. Malayalis from other terminals in India have also been hired.

“Some senior recruits have 30 years of experience in working in an international port,” says Joseph. “That is a major bonus for us.”

On May 24, a comprehensive training programme has begun. This is being spearheaded by the DP World Training Institute in Adelaide and Dubai.

“In the end, the biggest benefit will be for the image of Kerala,” says Joseph. “For so long it had an anti-investor reputation. Now, with this world-class terminal, the people are signalling that they are as interested in development as the rest of India.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Monday, June 07, 2010

Bearing the cross stoically

Kalamandalam John is the first Christian to become a master Kathakali dancer. But he had to overcome entrenched discrimination to achieve excellence in his art

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1971, after finishing his Class Ten exams, Kalamandalam John was pondering over what to do with his life. In school he had acted in many plays and participated in sports activities. Around this time, he attended a Kathakali concert at Ettumanoor for the first time. “I became very excited by the performance,” he says. Soon, a desire arose in him to learn Kathakali.

When he hesitantly told his father, a farmer, John received words of encouragement. So he applied to the Kerala Kalamandalam, at Cheruthuruthy in Thrissur district, and was selected.

But the regimen came as a shock to John. Every day he had to get up at 4 a.m. “My body was covered with oil and I had to jump up and down 100 times,” he says. “If we did not jump properly the teacher would hit us with a cane on the soles.”

This went on for three weeks: the massages, classes, and practical lessons. “It was overwhelming,” he says. “I could not handle it.” So John asked for a fortnight’s break, went back home, to Edayar village in Kootthatukulam, to tell his parents that he did not want to learn Kathakali. “My relatives made fun of me for giving up,” he says. “They said, ‘We told you not to go, but you were so obstinate.’”

John felt humiliated and angry. With renewed determination he returned once again to the Kalamandalam.

This time he remained. On February 14, 1973, he had his arengattam (debut performance) at Kalamandalam. And following that, for the first time, John’s religion began to hamper him. As a Christian he could not perform in temples.

So John would remain alone in the hostel, while his fellow students and elders went to take part in temple performances. When they returned, they would talk excitedly about their experiences.

“I would feel so bad,” he says. “There were many nights when I have cried myself to sleep. This happened right through my years of training.”

On rare occasions when the performance was held at a club or outside the temple he was allowed to take part. But there was further humiliation in store.

During dinner, while the others went inside the temple to eat, John would be served outside. “I was deeply upset,” he says.

But John was a brilliant dancer. He got the first rank through all the six years of training. In 1997, John received the A.D. Bolland Gold Medal for being the best Kathakali student at the Kalamandalam. But the award was usually given at a public meeting where prominent personalities are invited.

But John did not receive the same privilege. Instead, he was told to collect the certificate from the Kalamandalam office. “I don’t know why this was done,” he says. “I am, probably, the only person to receive my medal like this. It was an act of discrimination, although I don’t know whether it was done deliberately or accidentally.”

The next year John was awarded a Government of India scholarship, which was worth Rs 2000 a month. However, to get the scholarship, a consent letter had to be sent to Delhi from Kalamandalam. But for one month, despite several efforts, John could not get the permission. He was running out of time.

In desperation, through an uncle, John got in touch with the late Kochi-based M.K.K. Nair, a former chairman of the Kalamandalam.

Nair spoke to the superintendent, Vasudevan Namboodiripad. Three decades later, sitting in the lobby of the Cochin Cultural Centre, John still remembers the words of Nair verbatim: “This is MKK Nair speaking. John has got a scholarship. I am sending him to you. Please issue him the consent letter.”

When John went to the Kalamandalam the next day, he received the letter. The scholarship was for two years, but because he performed so well, it was extended by one more year.

Following the conclusion of the course, John was appointed as a part-time teacher at the Kalamandalam, for a monthly salary of Rs 350. During this time there were posts for teachers available, and John would dutifully go for the interviews. And each time he would be told that he would get his chance at the next opportunity.

“It reached a stage where one of my own students appeared for the interview at the same time as me,” says John. And when the student got the job, John was devastated.

He says that some of his colleagues at the Kalamandalam were against him, solely because he is a Christian. “I am the first Christian to learn Kathakali,” he says. Later, other Christians joined, but they were very few in number, and did not advance.

Then there was Haider Ali, the first Muslim to learn Kathakali, who was very talented and made a mark (see box). “But none of the Muslim and Christian students have become full-fledged teachers,” says John.

Meanwhile, among the many teachers he had, John is deeply grateful to Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair. “He was a big supporter, but most of the time he seemed unable to fight the bias,” says John.

This antipathy extended to his personal life. When John got married to Mary on January 6, 1985, at Edayar, not a single invitee from the Kalamandalam came for the function. “My relatives asked me why nobody had come,” says John. “I did not know what to reply.”

In 1988, John finally quit the Kalamandalam, and started his own Kathakali school, ‘Kalatharangini’, a few hundred metres away from his alma mater. Initially, he bought a small building on a small patch of land. Slowly, John began getting students from Europe and America. He also traveled abroad extensively and staged performances. His favourite characters include Duryodhanan, Keechikan, Ravana and Bhima.

Now the dance centre at Cheruthuruthy has expanded to half an acre. Apart from Kathakali, classes in Bharat Natyam, Mohiniyattom and Kuchipudi are also taught.

Mary is conducting these classes. John taught her to dance, years ago, and now she is an accomplished Kuchipudi and Mohiniyattom dancer. Their two daughters, Ruby and Riya, have followed in their parents’ footsteps. And John is a happy man, at the age of 55.

“I have no regrets about becoming a dancer,” he says. “In fact, I became a good dancer, because of the many struggles I faced. Thanks to Kathakali, I have my own school, am financially comfortable, have traveled all over the world and have a beautiful family. What more can anybody ask?”


The first Muslim Kathakali artiste

Haider Ali was only 11 when he joined the Kerala Kalamandalam. Since he came from a poor family, he needed the help of benefactors to pay the fees. At the institution, Kalamandalam Neelakantan Nambisan, Sivaraman Nair, and Kalamandalam Gangadharan gave him training in the vocal music of Kathakali.

His turning point came when M.K.K Nair, the then chairman of The Fertilisers and Chemicals, Travancore Limited, gave him a job in the company’s Kathakali school in Ambalamedu, near Kochi.

Haider Ali worked alongside such stalwarts like Kalamandalam Keshavan (chenda), Kalamdanalam Sankaran Embranthiri (music) and Chalakkudi Narayanan Nambeesan (maddalam).

Because Hyder Ali was familiar with Carnatic music thanks to his training under N.K. Vasudeva Panickar at the Kalamandalam, this enabled him to develop a unique style of his own in Kathakali music. Hyder Ali effectively used the ragas to the Kathakali padams which enamoured the listeners.

Because of this innovation, there are people who only listen to songs, without the accompaniment of the dance. This was Haider Ali’s lasting innovation.

Since he was a Muslim he was unable to perform in temples, especially in north Kerala. But there was a famous incident when the administrators of a temple in Chengannur broke down a wall, so that Haider Ali could sing for the performers inside the compound.

Like Kalamandalam John, Haider Ali mentioned in his autobiography that he suffered from discrimination because of his religion.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was at the peak of his reputation. But, tragically, Haider Ali died in a road accident close to his home-town, Wadakkanchery, on January 5, 2006. He was only 60.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Friday, June 04, 2010

The long and winding road

Augustine Painter, a driver of a Kerala State Road Transport Corporation talks about how he deals with unruly passengers, chaotic traffic, sleepiness at night, and body pains

By Shevlin Sebastian

One night, Augustine Painter, a driver of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation, was travelling on a road in the hilly district of Kumily. Suddenly he saw a 12-foot long King Cobra crossing the road. Augustine braked. On the other side, a lorry also halted. The headlights of both the vehicles confused the cobra. It raised its hood and looked to the left and the right.

Soon, there was a long line of vehicles on either side. More lights were aimed at the cobra, but the reptile did not move. Nobody knew what to do. Twenty minutes went past. Augustine then realised that the headlights was causing distress to the snake.

“I told the drivers to switch off all the lights,” says Augustine. When darkness appeared, the cobra relaxed and slithered off.

This is one of the many incidents that Augustine has experienced in his long years at the Ernakulam bus depot. The driver usually does the Ernakulam-Thiruvananthapuram route. Other assignments include trips to Coimbatore, Kanyakumari, and to hilly towns like Munnar and Marayoor.

“Driving is a strenuous job,” he says. In the high-altitude areas, because of the strain of handling the steering wheel, most of the drivers suffer from shoulder pains. The regular pressing down of the clutch results in an ache in the left feet and leg, while the incessant shifting of the gears leads to a pain in the left hand.

A major percentage of the drivers also suffer from acidity in the stomach. They rarely eat on time and depend on hotel food.

“We have to give preference to the passengers,” says Augustine. “We cannot stop the bus because we are feeling hungry and have our meal. Instead, we carry on till we reach the terminus. We are professionals and try to do our best.”

To do their best, the drivers need a high level of concentration. “I am responsible for the safety of the passengers, as well as my own,” he says. “Therefore, I am always alert.”

But despite his many years of experience, between 2.30 and 3.30 a.m., his eyes tend to blink. “That is the time when the need for sleep is the highest,” he says. “Most of the accidents take place during this hour.”

If Augustine feels very drowsy, he stops the bus, washes his face in cold water, and walks about for a few minutes. He says that a lapse of awareness by even one-hundredth of a second can lead to a major accident.

Asked about the safe ways to drive, Augustine says, “If I am taking a curve, I will always assume that there is a vehicle coming from the other side.” He avoids rash driving and always keeps a sharp eye on pedestrians who will suddenly dart from the sides.

Incidentally, there are specific sections on particular roads where there is a high possibility of a collision.

“Suppose I am travelling to Tripunithara, the moment I go over the bridge at Champakara I become very alert,” says Augustine. “There are vehicles coming from all sides, including the by-lanes. Fisherwomen are scurrying across the road, as well as bicycle riders and auto-rickshaws. Nobody follows the traffic rules. So I keep my foot on the brake all the time.”

Unscientifically constructed medians also cause accidents. “Most of the time, there are no reflectors at both ends of the median,” he says. “Sometimes when there is a vehicle coming from the opposite side with high-beam headlights, there is a strong possibility that we might not see the median.”

Drunk driving is another problem. When tourists are travelling in a bus, they will share alcoholic beverages with the driver. “Most drivers are hard drinkers,” says Augustine.

“They suffer from a hangover and get less sleep when they are working. Then the tourists will suddenly demand that they reach another place quickly. All these factors lead to accidents.”

In his bus, Augustine frequently meets inebriated passengers. “Most of them feel they can behave any way they want because the bus is government property,” says Augustine. “They are rude and constantly ask me to make unscheduled stops. When I refuse they get very angry and hurl abuses.”

But there are good passengers also. He remembers a 20-year-old Australian woman who was travelling with a group of friends to Munnar. At the end of the trip, she placed a blue cap on his head and said, “You drove very well. Thank you very much.”

Augustine is a good driver. In more than 30 years of driving both private and government vehicles, he has not had a single mishap. “All thanks are due to God,” he says.

When the veteran driver goes back home, to Edapally, after a double shift of 12 hours, he has a bath, eats a meal cooked by his wife, Mabele, and goes for a long, deep sleep.

The next day, of course, the red transport bus awaits Augustine…. for yet another journey.

Private Experience

Driver Farook Sheikh arrives at Kochi at 7 a.m. on a Shama Travels Volvo semi-sleeper, following a 550 km run from Bangalore.

He has a bath, takes breakfast, and opens up the luggage hold of the bus. He spreads a mat and lies down there. The bus is parked on the pavement on Mahatma Gandhi Road. Farook sleeps till 6.30 p.m.

“I am so deep in sleep that I don’t hear the traffic sounds at all,” he says.

Farook has dinner at 8.30 p.m. and sets out once again. “I work for six days and get six days off,” says the Bangalore-based driver.

Farook has been driving long distance buses for the past 20 years. “I am always aware that the lives of the passengers are in my hands,” he says. “I drive carefully and take no risks.”

Unlike KSRTC drivers, he does not suffer from body pains or aches in the leg. “The Volvo has power steering and clutch systems,” he says, with a smile. “Driving is smooth.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Full steam ahead!


Vice Admiral Krishnan Nair Sushil of the Southern Command is focused on strengthening coastal security and providing the best training for Navy cadets all over India

By Shevlin Sebastian

“There is always a possibility of a terrorist attack from the sea, because it is the easiest way to gain access to a country,” says Vice Admiral Krishnan Nair Sushil, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Southern Naval Command, Kochi. “Our fishing boats do not look any different from the Sri Lankan or Pakistani ones. We have the same culture and food habits. The Pakistani looks the same as an Indian and talks the same language.”

And they also have a common meeting-ground in the Middle East. “If a Pakistani wants to motivate an Indian -- to become a jihadi -- it becomes easier in the Gulf,” says Sushil.

Another drawback is that Indians are not at all security-conscious. Somebody will sweet-talk a fisherman to use a boat for 15 days. The fisherman thinks, ‘I need the money.’ “He is not aware that the boat may be used for a terrorist activity,” says Sushil. “These drawbacks are easily exploited.”

Nevertheless, after the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, the central government has sanctioned a large budget to upgrade the facilities of the Coast Guard. “Soon, the Coast Guard’s reconnaissance aircraft and helicopters will be larger than the Air Force’s,” says Sushil.

But coastal security is a major problem. In Mumbai harbour, on any given day, there are 450 shipping vessels. “To keep track is a difficult task,” says Sushil. “We have requested the fisheries department to issue identity cards and do regular checks.”

The same thing is being done in Kerala. “The good news is that the fishermen in the state have become very aware,” says Sushil. If they observe anybody who looks suspicious, they report it immediately.

“This last level of security is vital in a place where there are thousands of fishing boats,” says Sushil. “We may have the surveillance, and the sophisticated aircraft, but it is not possible for a pilot to monitor every inch of the coast.”

On the other hand, a fisherman can say, “This guy is not from here.” Immediately, the Coast Guard can zero in on the right suspect. “That is the strength we have built upon,” says Sushil. “Whenever a fisherman reports something significant, we reward him. The fishing community feels good that they are being appreciated.”

Apart from coastal security, Sushil’s major responsibility is in running the training institutes in the Southern Command. They include the Naval Academy at Ezhimala, and the other establishments at Chilka, Lonavala, Mumbai, Vishakhapatnam, Coimbatore, and Jamnagar.

Asked how the cadets of today are different from the past, Sushil says, “They are much better informed.” In earlier times, when a major incident took place, cadets had no access to information.

“Today, a cadet can go to the Internet,” says Sushil. “He can read about how a submarine of the United States Navy has collided with another one. Photos, diagrams and analysis are easily available.”

Another significant difference is that the present-day cadets tend to opt for easier jobs. “So, there are fewer youngsters who want to work in submarines,” says Sushil, a submariner.

On the other hand, there are plenty of candidates for aviation because of the ‘glamour’ quotient and the perception that if they quit the Navy 20 years later, they can easily get another job as a commercial pilot.

“Among the youngsters there is a lot of calculation,” says Sushil. “But they work hard, and have their own way of doing things. They are better at taking decisions than we were at their age.”

But as a leader Sushil has been adept at taking decisions. Earlier, he had been the commander of two destroyers, ‘INS Ranvijay’ and ‘INS Delhi’.

So what are his tips on leadership? “Learn your job, be honest, and look after your men,” he says.

Sushil gives an example. At sea, he would regularly would walk down from the bridge and go to the hot engine room and talk to the man on duty. “He feels good that the captain is not staying put in the air-conditioned bridge,” says Sushil. “I respect my subordinates. I tell them, ‘You are an important member of the ship and I trust you.’ They always respond with enthusiasm.”

In his spare time, Sushil likes to play golf or go for a jog or do some reading. The book he is perusing now is, ‘Breaking Ranks: The True Story Behind the HMAS Voyager Scandal’ by Peter Cabban and David Salter. It is an account of the collision between an Australian aircraft carrier and a destroyer.

“The book talks about how the Navy tried to cover up the incident,” says Sushil. “It is a fascinating read.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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